October 19, 2021

What are single-serve coffee bags?


Across industries around the world, consumers are continuously increasing its demand for convenience and speed. The coffee sector is no different – people want high-quality coffee as quickly and as easily as they can get it. 

The coffee market has always adjusted accordingly, and these days, consumers have access to a wide variety of options that are more convenient than simply brewing coffee. These include soluble coffee and capsules.

But while pods continue to grow, what about the elusive single-serve coffee bag? In recent years, these have started to emerge across the market. Have they been successful?

To learn more, I spoke to Georgina Cowley of Lincoln and York and Jonathan Wadham of Rombouts Coffee. They told me more about the two different types of single-serve coffee bags. Read on to learn what they had to say.

You may also like our article on why specialty coffee needs to befriend the capsule consumer.

coffee pods

An overview of the single-serve coffee market

Jonathan Wadham is the Communications Manager at Rombouts Coffee in Slough, England. According to him, the single-serve coffee market emerged in the 1970s, but has since grown significantly.

He says: “Single-serve coffees became popular in the 1970s, with consumers looking for a quick and convenient way to make a cup of fresh ground filter coffee without the mess or waste of traditional filter coffee machines.

“The category grew steadily with the addition of coffee bags in the 1980s/1990s. Single-serve pods and capsules were introduced in the 1990s, dominated by Nespresso.”

He adds that coffee bags have seen a significant resurgence in the past ten years, with several household names recently rebranding or launching a product in the market.

Georgina Cowley is the Marketing Manager at Lincoln and York in Brigg, England. She believes that these pre-ground and pre-weighed doses of coffee significantly lower the barrier to entry for coffee brewing. 

She says: “Coffee bags and single-serve pour overs can be brewed just by adding hot water, eliminating the need for a grinder or brewing equipment. 

“Capsules and pods allow the consumer to make espresso drinks at home without the need for an espresso machine or grinder, which can be expensive.”

rombouts coffee bags

Types of single-serve coffee bags

Single-serve coffees come in a variety of forms, but they all share the same purpose. They allow consumers to brew a cup of coffee without having to grind, improving convenience.

Coffee bags are a type of single-serve coffee that, as the name suggests, contain pre ground coffee in a bag which is then used for brewing. There are two main types: standard “coffee bags”, and pour over bags.

Coffee bags

Like tea bags, these single-serve coffee bags are made from either filter paper, food-grade plastic, or a combination of both. Some, like those from Wildland Coffee, even include the tags usually found on tea bags, which are used to remove the bag when it’s finished brewing.

Much like tea, these are steeped in hot water and removed after a set period of time. This means that all consumers need is a vessel and a source of hot water to make a cup of coffee, just like instant coffee.

For the manufacturer, the option to make coffee bags made from filter paper (which is thus far a majority of the market) can be a positive move, too. Because paper is entirely biodegradable, coffee bags can be a more sustainable solution for companies looking to enter the single-serve segment.

Pour over coffee bags

A variation on “standard” coffee bags is the drip coffee bag or pour over coffee bag, which is effectively a single-serve pour over coffee brewer. These first appeared in Japan in the early 1990s, but are now becoming popular with specialty coffee brands around the world. 

Instead of using a V60 or Melitta-type pour over brewer, the user simply unfolds tabs on either side of the bag and hangs it on their cup. This gives more discerning consumers the opportunity to make pour over coffee without having to grind and measure it. 

Like tea bag style coffee bags, pour over coffee bags can easily be made fully biodegradable and compostable, making them a more sustainable alternative to conventional aluminium and plastic coffee pods.

Single-serve specialty coffee?

According to Jonathan, the growing popularity of single-serve coffee has encouraged specialty coffee makers to get in on the action.

While many existing specialty coffee enthusiasts are perfectly happy to grind and weigh their coffee themselves, single-serve coffees can offer an alternative, accessible route into specialty coffee, especially for consumers who demand instant and convenient results. 

After Nespresso lost its patent on aluminium pods back in 2011, Jonathan says the door was opened to any specialty coffee company that wanted to expand into the single-serve coffee market. As a result, he tells me that the market has seen a major increase in volume and value.

Georgina, however, says that single-serve options can be viewed as a “gateway” approach to coffee – a step up from instant, without the additional spend on brewing equipment or a grinder.

She also notes that coffee pods and bags are often nitrogen flushed, which helps them to stay fresher for longer than they otherwise would if they were just stored as pre-ground coffee.

Georgina says: “Over time, we’d expect to see consumers leveling up their coffee, potentially investing in brewing equipment and grinding their beans.

“However, Kantar data shows massive growth of over 40% in [single-serve] coffee bag sales, mostly driven by large numbers of new shoppers.”

For the most part, single-serve options are growing, and the expansion into specialty coffee looks set to continue. 

“Single-serve coffee looks to pull consumers through the quality chain,” Jonathan says. “It moves them from instant to ground coffee due to the convenience and ease of use. They also draw specialty coffee consumers in with the ever-increasing level of quality offered in the single-serve category.”

used coffee pods

What are the environmental implications of single-serve coffee?

The single-serve coffee market is not without its challenges. One of the biggest issues faced, especially for pods, is the environmental footprint that the packaging leaves behind. 

When single-serve coffee first entered the third wave scene, it was challenged by many because of difficulties with recycling. Conventional coffee pods are typically made of a combination of plastic and aluminium.

Jonathan says: “It’s estimated that in the UK alone, around 1,220 tonnes of waste enters landfills due to single-serve filters, pods, and coffee bags each year.” 

While this shows growth in the consumption of single-serve coffees, it also highlights the sheer environmental impact the sector has. Arguably, the most sustainable and environmentally friendly choice will be coffee bags made from filter paper or other plant-based materials.

However, Jonathan says that manufacturing biodegradable coffee pods is challenging, as the pods require a certain level of pressure resistance that many plant-based materials cannot provide.

Meanwhile, pant-based coffee bags face no such issue, making them the clear choice for specialty coffee companies concerned about their environmental impact. There are exceptions, of course, as some manufacturers still use food-grade plastic for their bags, but this is quickly changing.

Georgina says: “Lincoln & York coffee bags are made from a compostable plant-based material, while the outer film is available in stream 4 recyclable LDPE.”

Rombouts, meanwhile, introduced the first home compostable one cup filter coffee last year. 

Jonathan says: “The new One Cup Filter is 100% home compostable, with the packaging being fully recyclable. [They’re] made from bagasse, a natural by-product of sugarcane.”

Single-serve coffees have already proven to be an appealing intermediary between instant coffee and specialty coffee for some. Quality is increasing, too, creating a burgeoning consumer audience for specialty coffee capsules, pods, and bags alike.

Furthermore, the sheer simplicity of coffee bags removes many barriers to access for those who are unable or unwilling to invest in specialised equipment. All you need is hot water and a mug – and that’s a powerful marketing angle.

Enjoyed this? Then read how to reduce the environmental impact of your coffee habit.

Photo credits: Rombouts Coffee, Lincoln & York

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